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Cabaret: Achtung Baby

Life is a darker ‘Cabaret’

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I don’t want people to break out in a cold sweat,” says British director Sam Mendes, whose radical reworking of the 1966 musical Cabaret begins previews Feb. 13, “but it is down and dirty.”

Cold sweat? No. Cold shower, maybe. “There’s a raw, bruised, track-marked [feel] to the clientele and dancing girls,” says Mendes. “We’ve taken out some numbers that made it more buoyant.” The revival will include three John Kander-Fred Ebb songs director Bob Fosse inserted into the Oscar-winning 1972 film — “Mein Herr,” “Maybe This Time,” and a version of “Money.” But similarities to the movie stop there.

And forget any similarity to anything else on Broadway; for the revival, Mendes is transforming a grubby ex-disco off Times Square into the Kit Kat Klub. “The play’s about how easily one can be seduced,” says Mendes of the musical about nascent Nazism in 1930s Berlin. “It’s about enticing people into an atmosphere where everyone feels welcome; then, what was seductive becomes aggressive.”

The Emcee (Joel Grey in the film) is being given a nefarious spin by Scottish actor Alan Cumming (“He’s disgusting,” says Mendes). And as Sally Bowles — the role Liza Minnelli made famous — Mendes chose Natasha Richardson, who’s more of an actress than a singer. “Sally’s supposed to be a second-rate singer,” she says. “So if I sing second-rate — though I’m trying — that works.” (Her husband, Liam Neeson, will appear on Broadway this spring in the drama The Judas Kiss.) Kander (Chicago) approves: “One of the problems with the movie is you think, Why wouldn’t that girl have a great career?”

The cast also features Ron Rifkin, John Benjamin Hickey, Mary Louise Wilson, and the aforementioned dancing fraulein, choreographed by Rob Marshall. “It’s a serious musical,” says Joe Masteroff, who’s revised his book for Cabaret, “but not a crotch is left untouched.”